The conversation around fracking has long been present in political circles and is an issue on which even candidates from the same party seldom agree upon. It was a contentious and topical issue in the democratic primary, and we saw its return in both the vice-presidential debate on October 7th and the presidential debate on October 22nd when the candidates sparred over fracking and climate change policies. On both nights, the Trump-Pence ticket accused the Biden-Harris campaign of wanting to ban fracking in the United States. In reality, the Biden-Harris plan will not issue any new fracking permits on public soil.
But, more broadly, it begs the questions as to why fracking received such a dedicated amount of time in the debate. There are a few reasons, but primarily it was a politically important issue during the election this year, where Democrats worried that banning fracking would cost them necessary swing-state votes in states like Pennsylvania, where the fracking industry is an important employer in the state. Bottom line is, when thinking about future climate issues, fracking is an important but unsettled issue. It presents an interesting debate about the tradeoffs between not only the economy and climate solutions, but also the efficacy of fracking as both a long-term and stop-gap solution. In order to properly understand and engage in such a debate, we have to explore how fracking works and its interplay with climate and a modern economy.
A Brief Scientific Understanding
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process by which we are able to extract wells of natural gas buried deep underground —a byproduct of exposing decaying organic matter to heat and pressure. At first, a wellbore — a long vertical shaft —drills anywhere between 2500 and 3000 km vertically into layers of sediment. Upon reaching this point, the drill drills horizontally for another 1.5 km, and a perforating gun creates small punctures in the rock layer. A well casing is also inserted in the process to attempt to prevent any leakages.
In the United States, large fracking reserves are often found in vast shale formations located throughout the midwest and east coast. After the well itself has been established, a pressurized liquid is injected into the rock, creating cracks through which oil and gas are extracted. Generally, the liquid is mostly water (up to 97%), but also contains a concentrated mixture of several chemicals which aid in the extraction process. Usually sand is also mixed in as a proppant to allow for the continuous flow of oil and natural gas even after the pressure has been released. Once extracted, this oil and natural gas is combusted for energy.
A Brief Political Understanding
Fracking became especially popular in the United States throughout the 2000s as the U.S. became more energy independent and less reliant on oil imports. As a result, the hydraulic fracking industry boomed in the past two decades and is responsible for a majority of the natural gas burned in the U.S. But especially in this past election cycle, fracking has become a particularly political issue, and whether or not to ban fracking altogether is a tough issue to navigate considering both the economic and climate effects of policies that advocate as such.
During the democratic primary, the candidates were relatively split on fracking with policies ranging from completely banning fracking, to phasing fracking out, to ending new permits on public lands. Even during the democratic debates, it is clear that the party itself does not have a consensus on how to approach the issue.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, it’s important to understand that fracking is a process by which natural gas is extracted and then burned, and the U.S. needs to transition away from burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. However, there is a strategic way to transition away from such fuels: we need to stop fracking as urgently as possible, but with infrastructure in place that adequately transitions the US out of a natural gas-run economy to a renewable energy based economy.
The Merits of Fracking
Before I detail the numerous cons of fracking, it is worth understanding the merits of fracking as a stop-gap measure. The term “stop-gap” is often thrown around loosely but generally refers to temporary— long or short— solutions that help transition the U.S. economy into renewable sources of energy. Fracking is a stop-gap solution. It allows the U.S. to transition out of forms of energy, such as coal, which are deeply destructive to the environment. Generally, natural gas is more environmentally friendly than coal. On average, burning coal releases about twice the carbon dioxide that natural gas does. So the U.S. does technically net less carbon emissions by burning fossil fuels. As such, it was one of the reasons that U.S. emissions declined.
Furthermore, fracking allowed the United States to become energy independent and to start exporting oil as a means of profit in the world.
But these benefits are few and far between, and in reality, fracking has several health and environmental concerns. Ultimately, the pros of fracking do not outweigh the cons.
The Harms of Fracking
Fracking has proven to be a generally unsafe and material-consuming procedure. Each well can take anywhere between 1.5 and 16 million gallons of freshwater. Furthermore, when the well casing cracks, fracking water can contaminate groundwater supplies used in households. There are several other health problems with fracking as it has been linked to respiratory illnesses, problems during pregnancy and other mental and physical problems.
Environmentally, fracking is still burning natural gas which releases a significant amount of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
In many ways, banning fracking may be the necessary push we need to start heavily investing and transitioning to renewable energies. For the past decade or so, fracking may have provided the U.S. with a false sense of security, but in reality it is not a sustainable practice in the long term. Yes, carbon emissions have gone down, but they haven’t decreased further or fast enough and the effects are not necessarily long-term. While some argue that fracking needs to be a stop-gap measure in the future, the fact of the matter is that fracking has been a stop-gap measure for the past two decades, but the U.S. has yet to put in a solid transition infrastructure in place.
The window in which we need to act against climate change has likely already passed, and at this point, drastic, wide-sweeping policy changes must be implemented without hesitation. One of these policy changes is to ban fracking.
What would a transition infrastructure look like?
The Green New Deal, the topic of much political controversy in the past year, is one such solution that has generally been floated around. While the Green New Deal itself doesn’t explicitly call for banning fracking, proponents of the Green New Deal support its ban. The Green New Deal is important; it sets out a clear set of goals as to how to tackle the climate crisis in the country from all angles. But the Green New Deal is just that — a set of goals, not a clear actionable plan. While it is a start, it alone is not enough.
As I mentioned before, the Biden-Harris plan will not issue any new fracking permits on public lands. This is a start, but it’s a start that should have happened years ago, and in 2020, we need something more.
As such, we need a combination of these two. We need to have the concrete set of goals that come with a solid infrastructure in place. Doing one and not the other leads us to an impasse. Industry on its own has proven that it will not invest in clean energy. So, we need massive government intervention that simultaneously invests money into clean energy and provides industry incentives.
The reality has to come from a consensus of several factors including the readiness of other renewable sources of energy, some of which are not ready to support the long-term energy needs of the U.S. But ultimately, we are running out of time to make them ready, and we cannot wait until they are. We can’t ignore the serious problems of fracking just because it provides us with a temporary solution; it’s time to move on.
Featured Image: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-14432401